Lawyer: S.C. still failing rural schools (copy)

The South Carolina Supreme Court. File

COLUMBIA — Some lawmakers say it's time to change the practice of spouses or other family members tied to legislators getting judgeships and other state posts.

The move comes after the wife of a current lawmaker from Charleston and the son of a former legislator were both elected as judges Wednesday.

"I have a problem with legislators putting their spouse on college boards and judicial seats,"  Rep. Mike Burns, R-Taylors, said after Wednesday's joint House-Senate voting session of the Legislature.

"I just don't think we should be doing that," he added. 

Charleston Magistrate Jennifer McCoy — the wife of Rep. Peter McCoy, R-James Island — easily won an at-large seat on the Circuit Court bench with a single "no" vote after her two remaining competitors dropped out.

In another election, Walt McLeod IV won a seat on the 16th Circuit Court, in the Midlands, after his two remaining competitors also withdrew. There were no objections. He is the son of former Rep. Walt McLeod, D-Little Mountain, who didn't seek re-election in 2016.

Critics for years have complained about nepotism in judicial and college board elections. Two years ago, in an unusually controversial race, a legislator's spouse defeated a judge who had been on the bench for 16 years. 

South Carolina is among just two states where legislators elect judges.

Burns intends to co-sponsor legislation already in the works that would bar current legislators' immediate family members from running in a legislatively elected race. A 1996 state law already requires legislators to be out of office for one year before they can apply to be a judge themselves.

Before then, it was common practice for legislators to be elected directly from the Statehouse to the bench. The proposal would require a one-year wait for their family members too, as McLeod did. 

Some lawmakers say there should not be roadblocks to qualified candidates seeking posts. Rep. Leon Stavrinakis, D-Charleston, pointed out that all candidates went through the same vetting process. 

Candidates "should not have their futures hamstrung by the fact their spouse or their parent or their brother or sister make a choice to be in public service," said Stavrinakis, whose brother is on the Medical University of South Carolina board.

"That would be punitive and unfair," he added. "It would be crazy to disqualify people based on choices other people make just because they're related to them."  

Under state law, a legislative screening panel chooses the top three candidates for each judicial race. Fourteen people initially applied for the seat Jennifer McCoy won, making it the most contested judicial race this year. Names whittled out in December included former Rep. Jenny Horne, R-Summerville, who lost a bid for Congress in 2016. 

Sign up for updates!

Get the latest political news from The Post and Courier in your inbox.

Rep. Murrell Smith, vice-chairman of the Judicial Merit Screening Commission, said Jennifer McCoy's experience "checked all the boxes" for being a judge. Her interview was impressive and "the surveys about here were all glowing," he said, referring to the anonymous surveys collected from attorneys as part of the screening process.

"You have an imminently qualified person who has dedicated her career to becoming a judge," said Smith, R-Sumter. "There should be no reason we disqualify someone who has the dream, ambition and qualifications to be a judge because they're related to someone in the General Assembly."  

Grady "Leck" Patterson III was among McCoy's remaining competitors who dropped out ahead of the floor vote. The retired Air National Guard brigadier general is the son of the late Grady Patterson, who was state treasurer for 37 years. 

It's normal for the expected winner to be known well before the floor vote. Those who don't have the votes usually drop out rather than lose, making it easier for them to try again in a future election.

Rep. Josiah Magnuson, R-Campobello, said legislators shouldn't be electing judges at all. He believes the governor should appoint judges, much like the federal system.  

Others argue that would insert more politics into the system, not less.

Currently, the governor appoints magistrates — judges who handle most bail bonds, low-level charges and traffic violations. But senators select who's appointed. Jennifer McCoy was appointed a magistrate in 2015. 

In an other legislative election Wednesday, the wife of Rep. Weston Newton, R-Bluffton, won a seat on the University of South Carolina board.  

Follow Seanna Adcox on Twitter at @seannaadcox_pc.

Assistant Columbia bureau chief

Adcox returned to The Post and Courier in October 2017 after 12 years covering the Statehouse for The Associated Press. She previously covered education for The P&C. She has also worked for The AP in Albany, N.Y., and for The Herald in Rock Hill.